out of the mouths of babes

It was a long and crazy day, full of unexpected twists and turns.

It began with my normal volunteer hour at Learning Way Elementary School. This week, I was to help several different groups of second-graders walk through a booklet on what life was like in colonial times.

The first group was well-behaved, paid close attention, and we had a lovely little discussion springing from some of the things they’d noticed in the book.

The second and third groups? Well, not so much. We had a little bit of a behavior problem, to the extent that with the last group, I did something I try never to do:

“Do you want me to have to call Ms. Aymett over here?”

I can’t remember which group – it may have been the second – but one of the kids said to me, “Mr. Carney, do you know you have a really big belly button?”

Let me clarify here that my torso was fully covered throughout my visit to Learning Way this morning. What the child was seeing, and reacting to, was a bulge visible under my pullover. I do, in fact, have a walnut-sized belly button. It’s called an umbilical hernia. A few years ago, when I had a membership to Shelbyville Recreation Center, I overdid it on some weight machine or other and a small portion of my intestines pushed itself through my abdominal wall. It’s harmless; it can be corrected by surgery, if I were ever in a position to do that, but it’s no real problem except from an aesthetic standpoint, unlike the turn-your-head-and-cough sort of hernia.

Anyway, I and my Really Big Belly Button got out of the hour more or less unscathed. I felt bad that I hadn’t been able to hold the kids’ attention, but Ms. Aymett – as always – took it in stride.

Maybe I should write a children’s book: “The Really Big Belly Button.”

I bet that one they would pay attention to.

go west, young second-graders

“I can’t believe you haven’t written something yet,” posted Regan Aymett to Facebook just a few minutes ago. Come to think of it, I ought to.

RaiseYourHandLogocolorfinal%20(2)I haven’t been blogging about my weekly Raise Your Hand Tennessee volunteer hour at Learning Way Elementary School as much this year – not for any particular reason; I love it as much as ever. I just didn’t have anything specific to say.

But Regan’s right; today was a little unusual. The woman she usually has in the room with her working with some of the kids wasn’t there today, so it was just me and Regan. I spent the first few minutes helping a small group of girls finish an assignment they’d already been working on before I got there. But then I had a big group for the rest of the hour – it must have been seven kids, where I usually have about, maybe, five.

Turns out there’s a difference between managing a table of five second graders and a table of seven second graders. I hope I did OK; there were times I had to be really deliberate about making sure I paid attention to each child.

We had a worksheet with a few paragraphs about the California gold rush. The nit-picker in me objected to the summary, because – while it outlined the many hardships that kept settlers from making it all the way to California – it sort of implied that the people who did make it to California got rich right away. But this wasn’t a history lesson; it was a reading comprehension lesson for second-graders, and by virtue of that it was necessarily a little over-simplified.

Regan told me to read through the little story three times and then to spend 10 minutes letting them read it to me.

As Regan noticed – and teased me about in her Facebook post – the kids were disappointed that I didn’t pull out my smartphone and use it to time that 10 minutes. Regan commonly uses her iPhone or iPad for things like that, but I didn’t see a need since I was sitting where I could clearly see the clock on the wall. (And I didn’t need to time it that exactly). After that, there were some questions for the kids to answer on the worksheet.

Two of the boys were playing with change – one of them had several quarters, and another had a handful of pennies. One of them went and got the item he’d brought for snack time, and even though he didn’t open it he and the other boy were talking about it and it was a distraction. I had to try to keep the boys focused without spending so much time on them that I ended up ignoring the other kids who were already working on the assignment.

Even though I’ve been back in class for about a month now – and I’m not the only one – the Raise Your Hand Tennessee volunteers here in the county are supposed to attend an orientation session tomorrow at the school system central office. I think most of us are returnees and there are only one or two newcomers, so hopefully it won’t be too long. It is fun to hear about others’ experiences; some are signed up for one-on-one tutoring, others – like me – are signed up to work with groups.

Even after tomorrow’s meeting, I’m sure it’s not too late for other volunteers to sign up. I was a latecomer my first year in the program and didn’t start until January. Contact Pam Fisher at the United Way of Bedford County office (or your local United Way, if you’re elsewhere within Tennessee). It could be the most satisfying hour of your week.

A free offer

I have a special free offer for the first two men who respond to this blog post. Keep reading.

A couple of years ago, I decided that I missed blade shaving. I’d been reading about a couple of different Internet startups offering razors much more cheaply than Gillette, and I ordered a starter kit from Harry’s. I like Harry’s better than Dollar Shave Club for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I just like the razors, which I find to be attractive and well-made. I have the basic “Truman” handle, which is plastic, but there’s also a “Winston” handle, which is metal and which can be engraved. Unlike Dollar Shave Club, which buys its razors from a Korean company, Harry’s makes its own razors. (At the time I first ordered from Harry’s, they were contracting with a German company to produce their product. Soon thereafter, they bought the company.)

Secondly, unlike Dollar Shave Club — which only offers automatic subscription plans — Harry’s allows you to buy blades and other supplies on your own schedule. They also offer subscription plans, if you prefer automatic delivery.

In defense of Dollar Shave Club, they do offer several different types of razor cartridge — Harry’s has only one cartridge, a five-blade model — and they have very creative viral-video commercials:

Either company is going to save you quite a bit compared to Gillette or the other store brands.

Harry’s also offers shave cream, although I’ve found a different band, Cremo, that I prefer and which I buy from the store.


Anyway, getting back to the free offer: After my most recent order of replacement blades from Harry’s, I got an e-mail from the company saying that I could send free Harry’s razors to two of my friends as a special promotion. I was trying to think of who might be interested. I’ve already given a Harry’s razor to my oldest nephew as a Christmas gift; my brothers both have beards. So I’m going to open it up. If you’re interested, e-mail me or fill out my website contact form. First come, first served. I do not know if this is the full starter kit or just the razor and one cartridge. But it’s free — and it will save you money if you’re currently buying blades at the store.

Anyway, let me know if you’re interested.

Umami dearest, or, Marmite makes right

When I was growing up, science textbooks explained to us that there were four basic tastes – sweet, sour, salty and bitter. There were different taste buds attuned to each one, and anything we could taste with our tongues was made up of some combination of the four.

Even during my childhood, however, this was out-of-date information. As long ago as 1904, Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda had discovered a fifth taste, which he identified with a Japanese word meaning “pleasant savory taste,” umami. It took until 1985 for the term to be scientifically recognized worldwide, however.

Umami is often described as a “meaty” taste, and it’s present in things like meat, mushrooms, tomato and beans. Scientifically, it represents a famiily of chemicals called glutamates. Umami-rich ingredients like soy sauce or Worcestershire sauce pair well with things like meat because they complement the natural umami flavor in the meat itself.

A couple of weeks ago, I got the pleasure of interviewing my favorite food writer, Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats, to promote his new book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. The story will run in this Wednesday’sThursday’s T-G. To go along with the interview, I picked out a few of Kenji’s representative recipes from Serious Eats. Most used pretty standard ingredients – which is a good thing when you’re writing for a rural community – but the meatloaf recipe called for Marmite as an umami booster.

I have long been curious about Marmite (a British condiment) and its Australian cousin Vegemite. Lately, I had been thinking that on my next drive into Murfreesboro, I might try to buy a jar of Marmite from World Market at The Avenue.

But over the weekend, I happened on a whim to look for Marmite on Amazon and ended up ordering a jar. Because it’s actually being shipped from the UK, it won’t get here until next month, but the cost was quite reasonable for a specialty condiment. (I saw honey and hot sauce selling for much higher prices at the Webb craft fair last weekend in Bell Buckle.)

Vegemite and Marmite, as I understand it, are cousins but not identical. Both are made from spent brewer’s yeast, and both are quite salty and have very polarizing, love-them-or-hate-them flavors. Marmite is more syrupy, Vegemite more pasty. Either, and again all this is by reputation because I’ve never tried them, is best enjoyed in small quantities – spread very, very thinly on a piece of bread or toast. I have read that the reason non-Australians find Vegemite so disgusting is that they sample it by tasting a spoonful – and that’s not the way it’s meant to be eaten.

Most of my generation, of course, knows Vegemite from the lyrics to Men At Work’s “Down Under”: “He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich.”

Many chefs on Food Network and Cooking Channel will use anchovies as an umami booster in dishes like pasta sauce. They always fall over themselves reassuring you that the finished dish won’t smell or taste like anchovies – you’re just using a little bit, chopping it finely and letting it melt into the dish. You wouldn’t want to eat a big spoonful of dried basil or down a shot of pure vanilla extract, but either of those things can be great when added to a recipe. Anchovies, by the way, are an ingredient in many brands of Worcestershire sauce, one of the things which give that sauce its umami. (Check the label if you don’t believe me.)

Anyway, Marmite is supposed to be marginally friendlier than Vegemite, but it, too, is meant to be enjoyed in very small quantities – spread thinly on bread.

I can’t wait for my Marmite to arrive some time next month. I actually think I may like it, especially spread thinly on bread. I tend to like flavors like soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce, and I like salty things more than average.

back to school time

Yes, I know, school started two months ago. But for me, it started today.

WP_20151005_09_50_31_ProFor the past three years, I’ve been a volunteer with Raise Your Hand Tennessee, a United Way-coordinated program which places volunteers in elementary schools to help with reading for an hour a week – either through one-on-one tutoring or working with groups.

I am a volunteer at Learning Way Elementary, in the class of looping first-and-second grade teacher Regan Aymett. “Looping” means she has a class of first-graders, then stays with that same group of kids the next year as their second grade teacher, then loops back and starts all over again with a new class of first graders.

I volunteer on Monday mornings. When I first signed up for the program, I chose to work with groups rather than one-on-one (it’s completely up to you when you sign up). When I get to Regan’s class, she will generally break the class up into small groups, and I’ll work with one of the groups. The groups will rotate every few minutes, so by the end of the hour I’ll usually have worked with all of the kids. Today, I was listening to the kids at my table read from a little booklet. It was a fairy tale of sorts about three princes whose father, the king, turned them into bunny rabbits for misbehaving. One of the bunny princes escapes and falls in love with a beautiful princess, sort of a twist on the old Frog-and-Princess story. I would have two or three kids at a time, and each child would read a page at a time. We would rotate around the table. I was there to help with big or hard-to-pronounce words or names, of course, but the kids would also sometimes correct or help each other.

One things I noticed with several different groups today was that a child who would struggle while reading herself (or himself) would sometimes seem to do much better when correcting the child next to them! I’m not sure exactly how to explain this except that maybe they feel more pressure when it’s their turn to read. Regan, an NEA Master Teacher, could probably explain it to me, but obviously I never get a chance to ask her stuff like that when I’m in the classroom.

Because this is the second-grade year for Regan, most of her students this fall are the same students she had last year, and so I didn’t have to be introduced. The kids knew me. Because of the way the groups worked today, I didn’t get to see everyone, and Regan apologized to the kids who “didn’t get to work with Mr. Carney,” as if that were some sort of special treat.

New United Way of Bedford County executive director (and my former T-G co-worker) Pam Fisher, like Dawn Holley before her, waited to let school get started and things to settle in before calling the schools to place volunteers. When I ran into Pam at a news event last week, she told me that I could go ahead and start back for this school year whenever it was convenient for me and Regan.

New Learning Way principal Mary Pitner, whom I’ve known for years, happened to be in the front office when I signed in and got my visitor badge this morning and thanked me warmly for volunteering. But I told her it was my pleasure – every fall, I’m chomping at the bit to start up again.

If you’re in Tennessee, you can go to the Raise Your Hand website and find out more about how to volunteer. They’re very flexible, at least here in Bedford County, and can find a school and a schedule that fits you. You can, as I already noted, decide whether you want to work with a child one-on-one or with groups. United Way does a background check on each volunteer before placing them in the schools.

The final curtain

Well, the play is over, which is simultaneously the best and worst feeling in the world.

For weeks, I worked on my lines every day, worried that I’d never get all 300 lines memorized. Two rehearsals a week eventually turned into three a week, and then four rehearsals during “hell week” before we opened on the 18th.

And now it’s all over. I can delete the audio files from my phone, and go back to listening to music, or nothing at all, during my daily walk rather than listening to my lines. My schedule has suddenly gotten more open.

I’m tired; in some ways, I’m ready for it to be over. I won’t be auditioning for the Christmas play tomorrow afternoon; it’s hard for me to go straight from one production into another, although I know a lot of theatre people who do just that.

But I will miss it. This was a great role – the favorite role I’ve ever played, and it was the lead, which is always fun (but also adds some pressure). There’s nothing like being the last person out for curtain call. Even more important, this was a great cast and crew – I’d worked with most of them before. As most of us sat at Chili’s just now, unwinding from a week of performances, you could feel the mutual affection and admiration. I will miss spending time with these people – Martin and Dianne and Morgan and Amanda and Keith and Meridith and April and Joe and Cliff and Mary Ann and Randy and Anne.

And in a two-weekend production, there’s always the sense during that second weekend that we’ve just now gotten it right. You wish you had a few more opportunities to show the production off now that it’s been sharpened. But it’s got to come to an end.

I won’t know what to do with myself this week. I plan to get back to work on the book of sermons, devotions and essays that I’ve been compiling. Depending on how that goes, I may or may not decide to jump into National Novel Writing Month in November.

I’ll probably feel a little more lonely than usual this week. But I’ll get over it.

Harriett and Samantha

It was Harriett Stewart and Samantha Chamblee who, four years ago, first asked me to serve on the American Cancer Society Relay For Life committee in Bedford County. At the time, Harriett was our ACS staff partner and Samantha, a volunteer, was our local committee chair.

Since that time, a lot of things have changed — Harriett was transferred to another job within ACS and then ended up retiring. Samantha, on the other hand, ended up taking a job with ACS, and now she does what Harriett used to do for several counties in the area.

All of this makes it delightful that both women are now involved in Bedford County’s Relay once again. A reorganization of ACS territory means we are now one of Samantha’s counties. (Many thanks to our previous staff partner, Mackenzie Evans, who was also a delight to work with. Mackenzie is still with ACS and will be working with several college-based Relay events.)

Harriett, even though she lives in Lebanon, still has a special place for Bedford County’s Relay in her heart. When several of us from Shelbyville went to her retirement party a year or two ago, as soon as the people from other counties found out where we were from, they noted how often and fondly she spoke of the Bedford County crew. Anyway, Harriett will be working with us as a volunteer this year, helping to recruit sponsors for the Bedford County event.

Here’s Harriett, in the foreground, with Judi Burton, another known troublemaker:

A photo posted by John Carney (@lakeneuron) on

Both of these things were announced Monday night at our first committee meeting to start talking about the 2016 Relay. I think very highly of both these ladies and am looking forward to working with them in the coming year.

Technically, the 2015 Relay year has not ended yet. If you still want to give to this year’s Relay, you can do so between now and the end of the month. I’d be honored if you gave towards my participation.


I have a lot of lines in “Don’t Drink The Water.” I haven’t counted them; it’s probably not as many lines total as I had a few years ago in “Cash On Delivery.” But it seems like more, and in Act 2 I have several extended speeches. It will all work out, but at this stage of the game it always looks like a mountain to climb.

Monday night’s rehearsal was a table read-through, and I recorded it on my smartphone, making a separate file for each scene. I had to use Audacity on my desktop computer to clean up each file — taking out long stretches in which I have no lines, as well as cutting out parts of the readthrough where we got diverted. (We’ve eliminated a minor character, and so we had to reword a couple of lines referring to that character.) If I started out saying a line the wrong way and then corrected myself, I cut out the bobble (or else I might wind up memorizing the wrong word!).

I got Act 1 finished and loaded onto my phone Monday night, and so I was able to listen to my lines while doing my daily walk yesterday and today. Now, tonight, I’ve finished with Act 2 (and it’s a two-act play, so I’m done). Being able to listen to this recording is part of my strategy, and it’s worked well for the last few plays I’ve been in.

I think we have a really funny cast, and it will be fun to see things come together over the next few weeks. But “hell week,” and the production itself, will be here before we know it. I just hope I’m ready.

Cue at the Trib

From early April until mid-June, I was a temporary fill-in at the Times-Gazette’s sister newspaper, the Marshall County Tribune in Lewisburg. It was a fun experience. I’d worked at the same newspaper for my entire 30-year career (30 years this month, by the way), and so it was a new experience to go into a newsroom and a community where I really didn’t know anyone. The rhythm of a twice-weekly (Lewisburg) is also quite different from the rhythm of a daily (Shelbyville).

The Tribune hired a new editor, and I got transferred back to Shelbyville, during the week I was at Mountain T.O.P., so I never really got to say goodbye to the Tribune staff, all of whom had welcomed me with open arms (and a couple of whom kept making noises about keeping me).

Two of the Tribune’s reporters are about to head off to college. Ivory Riner has been with the paper for a while as she earned her associate’s degree from Columbia State. (Lisa Brown from the Tribune’s front office would sometimes have to remind her it was time to go to class.) Now, she’s getting ready to go west to Arizona State, where she will pursue a degree in broadcast journalism. (Never heard of broadcast journalism, but they tell me it’s a thing.) Madeline Lewis, the paper’s summer intern, will return to Knoxville, where she’s a student at the University of Tennessee. The paper had a farewell luncheon for them today, and it was the perfect time for me to head over and say hello (and goodbye) to everyone.
That’s Ivory in black, Madeline in white. At left is my high school classmate Becky McBee, who serves as business manager for both the T-G and the Tribune. Becky arranged the luncheon, which featured barbecue from Lawler’s. (If you are in Lewisburg, by all means get barbecue from Lawler’s.) She also had the idea for this cake:
It was fun seeing everyone. Jennifer Vendro was showing me photos of the new home she and her husband are buying in Hohenwald. Annie Stokes joined the news staff while I was there, and she’ll have to pick up some of the slack from Ivory and Madeline’s departures. The crowd even included some former staffers — Angela Brown left not long before I did. Jim Ward had already retired as the Tribune’s general manager before my temporary assignment there, but I dealt with him frequently when he was there and was delighted to see him, too.
I’m so glad I went over. It rained while I was there, or else I’d have been tempted to take one last walk on the Rock Creek Greenway, just for old times’ sake.